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In 1862, pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) teams up with daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) to advance human knowledge of the weather and fly higher than anyone in history. While their voyage to the very edge of existence helps the unlikely pair find their place in the world, they face physical and emotional challenges in the thin air, as the ascent becomes a fight for survival.
"The Aeronauts" is very loosely based on the career of the scientist James Glaisher who in 1862 was one of two men who set a new world record of 39,000 feet for the greatest height ever achieved in a balloon. Glaisher's aim in ascending to that height, however, was not simply to set a record for its own sake. He believed that by studying conditions in the upper atmosphere he could make an important contribution to scientific knowledge, particularly to the then young science of meteorology.
The film departs from historical fact in a number of ways, some of them minor, others more substantial. It has the balloon taking off in London, whereas in fact the ascent took place from Wolverhampton. Glaisher's father was also named James, but in the film he is referred to as Arthur. More seriously, when Glaisher refers to his belief that one day it will be possible to predict the weather, his fellow-scientists, almost to a man, ridicule him. In fact, the idea that the weather can be predicted was starting to gain scientific credibility in the 1860s; the forerunner of today's Met Office had been founded (by Darwin's friend Captain Robert Fitzroy of "Beagle" fame) in 1854.
The most significant change from the historical record concerns Glaisher's pilot. In real life this was Henry Tracey Coxwell who, despite that feminine-looking middle name, was definitely male. Coxwell, however, is written out of this story and is replaced by Amelia Rennes, a fictitious character based upon real-life female balloonists such as Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham. For some reason her surname is spelt in the cast-list as "Wren", but this must be an error as Amelia is the English-born widow of a French balloonist named Pierre Rennes, who met his death in a ballooning accident.
So what is the point of turning Coxwell into an attractive young woman? I initially assumed that the intention was to turn the story into a Victorian rom-com, especially as Glaisher here becomes a young bachelor played by the handsome Eddie Redmayne. (In real life, in 1862 he was a married man of 53). I was, however, to be proved wrong; no romance develops and the relationship between Glaisher and Amelia remains platonic.
Part of the answer, I think, is to make a feminist statement by providing us with a strong, capable and courageous female character, something of a rarity in period dramas. The heritage cinema genre has its merits, but it has never quite been able to shake off the accusation that it has perpetuated the stereotype of 18th and 19th century ladies as passive figures who spent most of their time sitting around in drawing rooms while the men did all the work. This sort of figure is caricatured here by Amelia's more conservative sister Antonia, who cannot understand why her sibling insists on messing about in balloons instead of settling down to domestic bliss with some nice young man. That is not, however, the whole answer; there are other reasons, connected with the circumstances of Pierre's death, why this particular story would not have worked with two male protagonists.
The film is more of an adventure-thriller than a rom-com. The central question is not "Will they fall in love?" but "Will they survive when things go wrong?" And, of course, things do go wrong; nobody is going to make a film about a balloon which takes off safely and then lands safely about an hour-and-a-half later after an uneventful flight. (The main action, the balloon flight itself, is shown in real time, with occasional flashbacks detailing the earlier lives of the protagonists).
If I had one criticism it would be that Amelia's feats of derring-do as she climbs out of the basket and clambers all over the balloon, several miles above the ground, to save the flight from disaster seem a bit exaggerated, even though the special effects involved are impressive. Could anyone really have done that without plunging to her death? I know that James Bond performs several similarly improbable feats in every episode of his adventures, but then the Bond movies are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, whereas "The Aeronauts" wants us to take it seriously in every other respect.
There are, however, good performances from Felicity Jones as the gutsy Amelia and from Redmayne as Glaisher. He rather reminded me of Newt Scamander, his character from the "Fantastic Beasts" movies, another young, earnest and slightly bumbling scientist. (I have never seen his portrayal of another real-life scientist, Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything"). Overall, "The Aeronauts" is not just an enjoyable period adventure; it also asks some serious questions about whether it is worth risking one's life in pursuit of fame, glory or scientific knowledge. Just don't go to see it if you are afraid of heights.
A goof. Glaisher's mother is here given the name Ethel. This is an unlikely name for an elderly lady who was probably born around 1790, as the name did not come into general use until the mid-19th century. Anyone called Ethel in 1862 would have been either a child or a much younger woman than old Mrs Glaisher.
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